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Albania and North Macedonia: heroes just for one day?

We could be heroes just for one day

Though nothing will keep us together

We could steal time just for one day

David Bowie

“Historic mistake” is the recap of the outcome of the European Council Summit, which didn’t adopt the decision to grant the start of negotiations for EU Accession of North Macedonia and Albania. This news has toppled the hopes of both countries for becoming members of the EU family, at least in the next decade.

President-elect of the EC, Ursula Von der Leyen, announced that the EU will commit to the Enlargement and integration of the Western Balkan (WB) countries. The failure to adopt a decision on North Macedonia and Albania’s EU aspirations has conveyed a message to the region which has been echoed for a very long time – NOT YET.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been the main opponent of any further enlargement of the European Union “until the Union itself undergoes a deep reform, a new methodology for accession negotiations that would make them less technocratic”. No details for this proposal have been shared. It also remains unclear whether this would apply also to countries which are currently negotiating accession, such as Serbia and Montenegro.

Another point of disagreement between the EU leaders was the decoupling of North Macedonia and Albania which would grant the start of negotiations only to North Macedonia, as Albania, according to some leaders, was “not there yet". The French government was not alone in pointing out the enlargement fatigue and the problems with the rule of law in some of the states that joined after 2004 (Poland, Hungary). Also,  France is insisting on a strict application of the criteria for membership during the negotiation and crafting new instruments to better monitor the rule of law.

In his recent visit to Belgrade, President Macron warned of "rising tension" in the region, referring to Russia’s enhanced presence and aspiration to capitalise on the still unresolved dispute between Serbia and Kosovo. A year ago, he addressed the public in North Macedonia to encourage the voters to have their say in the referendum on the name change, praising the “courage of the leaders and the central position of the Prespa Agreement in the country’s plans for the future”.

The strong positioning against enlargement in the near future pretty much contradicts this and has been perceived as hypocrisy among the public.

In the aftermath of the disappointing week, the fear of the consequences of this failure for the two countries, but also for the whole region, is rising. The slammed door by the EU to these countries has been seen as an open invitation for other actors in the East to take advantage and create further instability in the region. It’s neither new nor unknown that Russia, China, Turkey and UAE have laid their hands on the region in various forms to influence the cultural, religious, educational and economic development of these countries.

Moreover, having no prospects for EU membership is encouraging young people to leave their country to go to Europe as “EU is not coming to them”. With already devastating figures of brain drain in all Balkan countries, the poor economic development, political and social environments and shattered European dreams, the youngest generations are rapidly losing hope that they can also become European citizens.

Since the Feira summit held in Portugal in 2000, the WB countries have been considered as potential candidates for EU membership. So far, only Montenegro and Serbia have started accession negotiations, in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

Albania and North Macedonia are expecting to start negotiations (Albania has been a candidate for 5 years and North Macedonia for 14 years!). Bosnia & Herzegovina has not received its candidate status yet. Kosovo is not allowed to apply for membership under Article 49 of the Treaty on the EU, as the state is not recognized by 5 EU member states.

In the particular case of North Macedonia, it went through an extremely complicated and painful process of reaching a deal with Greece on the name issue, which was also a precondition for its NATO membership. Moreover, after the adoption of the new name into the Constitution with the votes of MPs who received an amnesty for their alleged roles in the violent storming of Macedonian parliament in April 2018, the friendship treaty with Bulgaria, it seemed that the country deserved to be given the green light into their EU aspirations. As a result, many EU leaders expressed their “embarrassment” with the EU failing to fulfil its promises and losing its credibility in the region.

With the next opportunity for discussions scheduled to take place in Zagreb May 2020, it is yet to be seen if the Council intends to legitimately discuss future steps, or is merely flying a flag of false hope to all candidate countries. The prime minister of North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, expressing his “disappointment with the unjust decision,” has called for snap elections, which will bring more uncertainty to the future of the governing constellations, and the ensuing reform process.

The former Minister of Foreign Affairs in the government led by VMRO DPMNE publicly expressed that there are voices inside the party deliberating how to revert the Prespa Agreement if they come into power.

Embodying the frustration of the country in this seemingly never-ending process, the foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov asked the EU to be straightforward if there is no more European future foreseen for the WB countries, bluntly stating “the citizens deserve to know”.

And as we know, hope is the last to die. Because it would be a failure of a historic magnitude if the Western Balkan countries, in the eyes of the EU, would turn out to have been heroes just for one day.

Photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash